Thursday, August 27, 2009

Economy and the Haiku: Basho and the Recession of 2009

At the ancient pond
a frog plunges into
the sound of water (Basho)

The last time I taught American literature since 1950 an odd thing happened. The contents of the course and the contents of my life folded together like an accordian. I would teach a book, then seem to enter it, move on to another, and enter that one. The first such incident attended our reading of Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. That farcical-tragic novel features a wounded soldier called "the man in white." No one knows quite if he's alive or dead; he simply lies on his hospital bed, his leg propped up in the air, and other characters stare at him, try to suss out whether or not he breathes. So I was driving home on the H1 freeway one day, about to merge into the right lane after the Pali turn-off, when I looked to my right and gasped. Beside me was an odd ambulance with uncurtained back windows through which I saw a person wrapped in a white sheet, his arms raised in the air. The man in white.

Later synchronicities included hearing from a former civil rights worker (he'd been an aide to Stokely Carmichael) as we read Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon; this man was moving to Maui and wanted to talk about how to publish his memoir. Then, as we read Maxine Hong Kingston's China Men, I found myself in a meeting with an immigration lawyer and a graduate student from China I was sponsoring. She was trying to stay in the country. The lawyer asked her how her name is transcribed in English, as a word, or by syllables. This (and much else) happens to Chinese immigrants in the book. Memory won't offer up another example just now, though I'm certain there was one.

And so today, a couple of years later, I sit down to read haiku by Basho for my English 273 (Creative Writing & Literature) class. On my syllabus the students will read, "Monday, August 31: Hamill. (Buson) Go to the Krauss Hall pond . . . this week and sit for a while." Many of us who work at UHM walk through the pond area on our way to our offices; it's one of the few spots on campus that suggests community. It's alive with cats, carp, turtles, and waves of old and new ducks. One tree blooms purple, sheds its blossoms into the water, blooms again. Any change to the pond causes consternation in the faces of the resident custodian and those lucky souls who work in the building that surrounds the pond on three sides. One of my mother-in-law's cats was found by the pond.

As I begin my reading, I get an email from my colleague, Jon: "Bien the groundskeeper told me today that this weekend all the ducks will be removed from Krauss Hall, permanently, along with most of the fish."

The Ron Padgett Handbook of Poetic Forms, which I have assigned to my students, defines haiku as "a 'poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived in which nature is linked to human nature.'" To which one might add that it is a poem about deeply felt transiences. One of my favorites is about the longing Basho feels for the very place in which he is:

Even in Kyoto,
how I long for Kyoto
when the cuckoo sings (Hamill, 39)

The sense of repetition ("I long for Kyoto, while in Kyoto") is intensified by the cuckoo, which tends to sing twice or more (at least when my husband's clock is working well!)

Padgett's definition is quite secular; nowhere does he mention the moon-viewing huts one sees in Japan near Shinto shrines. Nor does he mention Buddhism, its emphasis on transience. But what I miss at the moment is the clear link, not between "nature and human nature," but between "nature and human economy." For it's the state budget cuts that are lopping away at these few places where nature inhabits the university, provides a spot to watch the animals and each other. Whatever the cause, however, I will miss Krauss Hall pond as I sit at Krauss Hall pond and remember the ducks that are no longer there.

Even by Krauss Hall pond
how I long for Krauss Hall pond
where ducks swam and quacked.

On another note, one that wrought-irons together (hat-tip to Amalia Bueno of English 410 for that verb) the poor economy and book publishing, I've been asked to spread word of the University of Alabama's Modern & Contemporary Poetics Series "recession special." Among others, my book of essays is on offer at half its list price. Such a deal may never happen again, if we're lucky. Although I did buy Tyrone Williams's first book of poems the other day on for one cent. Postage extra.

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